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What is the Solution to Fuel Poverty That Affects Children?

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2012 is going to be very tough for the poorest families and children as they struggle to even heat their homes.

This morning a flurry of new reports have been published by the IFS, Shelter and Save the Children showing how hard 2012 is going to be for poor families, struggling to make ends meet.

While everyone is bracing themselves for what has been described as a tough year ahead, it is the poorest families who face the biggest struggle as energy price rises and benefit cuts hit them so much harder - forcing them to make impossible choices about where to prioritise, with real consequences for the well being of their children.

Today Save the Children has found a massive short fall in a scheme to help families struggling to pay their fuel bills, leaving hundreds of thousands of children living in a cold, damp house and their parents having to decide between putting a hot meal on the table or putting the heating on.

The results of Save the Children's survey, conducted as part the No child left in the cold campaign asked parents from the poorest families what they thought the impact of rising energy prices would be on them and their children this winter.

The results are very worrying. Almost half (45%) said they are considering cutting back on food in order to pay their energy bills this winter. A third said that, even if they cut back on essentials, they still would not be able to afford their heating bills. And more than half (54%) are worried that the children's health will suffer because their house is too cold this winter.

Why is this? For many years, Save the Children has drawn attention to how the poorest have paid higher tariffs than others, often because they do not have internet access to find out about the best deals from price comparison websites, are in debt and unable to move provider or because they do not have access to the cheaper schemes you only get through using direct debit. As prices have risen, the poorest have faced paying an ever larger proportion of their income on keeping their homes warm.

What's more, energy companies, whilst recognising that poor families with young children are a priority for extra support, have failed to set aside the funds needed to ensure that all such families receive an annual discount to help get them through the winter (in the way that pensioners on pension credit, for instance, now receive a £120 automatic rebate from their energy company).

Of the 800,000 families with young children who the government recognises as being vulnerable to fuel poverty (this is the group eligible for government cold weather payments when the weather is particularly harsh), Save the Children calculates the energy companies together have set aside enough funds for just 25,000 of these to access their rebate.

What is the solution to fuel poverty that affects children? We need immediate action to stop our poorest families suffering this winter, and long term action to eradicate the problem once and for all.

Right now, we need to see the energy companies face up to their responsibilities, and set aside the extra money needed to ensure all of the poorest families with young children can access the annual £120 rebate directly from their fuel provider. Energy companies could also step in by making sure that all prepayment meter customers and all customers in arrears on their bills are automatically placed on the cheapest tariff.

In the longer term, we need to see more direct help to ensure the homes of the poorest are insulated. And of course, we must see wider action on child poverty itself - ensuring that the poorest families in the country have enough funds to provide the basics such as keeping the home warm in winter. Getting through 2012 is no doubt a worrying prospect for many in the squeezed middle, but for families with the least, just making sure their kids are warm this winter is one of their biggest concerns. We cannot, as a society, allow this to continue.

You can help make a difference right now by signing Save the Children's petition calling for more action from the energy companies to help the poorest children. Go to savethechildren.org.uk/coldkids

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